It’s no secret that plastic recycling has revolutionized our society’s ability to improve the circularity of our economy and the sustainability of our planet. A recent analysis of European plastics production, demand, and waste data found that 29 million tons of plastic post-consumer waste was collected for recycling in Europe in 2020, up from 24.5 million tons in 2006. This is a remarkable achievement. Yet over 23% of this plastic collected for recycling was still ultimately sent to landfill. Of the 8.3 billion tons of plastic produced globally since the 1950s, only 9% has been recycled. Approximately 79% of it has ended up in landfill. Clearly, there are still several challenges with recycling and reusing plastic materials.
The industry’s inability to extract certain polymers from plastics in a cost-effective and scalable way is one major hurdle. When converting plastics from waste streams for new uses, producers are often confronted with material that contains colouring agents and other additives, depending on its original function. These unwanted substances can hamper recycling and inhibit reuse in various applications. The room for improvement in our recycling systems is vast, especially when it comes to recovering and reusing titanium dioxide (TiO2), an additive used to protect polymers from being damaged by UV rays and give whiteness, from various waste streams.
Today’s commercial scale recycling technologies do not allow polymers and additives to be effectively removed and separated, limiting the potential applications and overall quality of products made with recycled plastic. There’s a clear need for detection and extraction technologies that can remove TiO2 from recycled plastics, without going to full chemical depolymerisation.
Discovering a New Way to Drive Plastics Circularity
To overcome these recycling challenges, Chemours is leading a collaborative, cross-value chain, three-year recycling research project in partnership with the world’s foremost researchers and industry partners. Called Remove2Reclaim, the project’s goal is to develop an efficient, cost-effective, and environmentally friendly process for recovering TiO2 and polymers from plastic end-use products. The initiative has the potential to drive significant environmental benefits by minimising waste, reducing manufacturing energy, and enabling circularity across a much wider range of applications.
The goal is to separate the TiO2 and polymers from the finished, recycled plastic product by dissolution without using harsh chemicals in the process. Ideally, the recovered materials will be reused in high-quality applications without sacrificing quality or performance.
Window profiles in direct contact with UV light, styrene-based engineering polymers, and many other plastic materials that require high-quality TiO2 are all potential applications to put this reclaimed TiO2 to work. By focusing first on high-quality applications, the project hopes to also create a process that’s subsequently applicable to all plastic materials, compounding its potential impact on the sustainability of our planet.
Benefits for the Industry & Planet
In the project’s first year, researchers have developed a sorting mechanism to effectively identify plastic wastes that contain TiO2 and determined innovative solvent-based extraction routes to remove TiO2 from different polymer matrices. Next steps include developing methods and equipment to detect TiO2 in specific polymer matrices, recovering TiO2 from the polymer by dissolution route, and eventually reusing both the TiO2 and polymer in new products.
Doing so would create a completely new recycling process that does not currently exist at a commercial scale anywhere in the world. If successful, this project would give a second life to thousands of tons of TiO2 each year and benefit the industry and planet in several ways:
1. Reduced energy and waste: With the potential to recover such a high volume of TiO2 from existing materials, this initiative could significantly decrease the need to manufacture new TiO2. Doing so would meaningfully reduce the overall energy used and waste created in TiO2 manufacturing for decades to come.
2. Decreased raw material constraints and mining: In addition to using less energy in manufacturing, extracting and recovering TiO2 from existing plastic products would also significantly reduce ore and other mineral demand for TiO2 production. This would limit the need for and environmental impact of mining, preserving raw materials for future generations.
3. Increased TiO2 supply: TiO2 recovery from existing materials would also provide a new TiO2 supply during high-demand cycles. With supply chain disruptions increasing in frequency and severity around the globe – from COVID-19 related delays, shipping logistics issues, and natural disasters – secure supply is more valuable than ever.
Collaborating to Create Circular Solutions
With aspirations to create a revolutionary global plastic recycling process, this research project requires the engagement and expertise of stakeholders from across the entire value chain. Launched in September 2020 with the support of Catalisti, the spearhead cluster for the chemical and plastics industry in Flanders, Remove2Reclaim (HBC.2020.2464) is a partnership of the public and private sectors. The project also received funding from VLAIO, the Flanders Innovation and Entrepreneurship Agency.
With input and collaboration from a wide range of the world’s leading researchers and industry partners, we’re confident we can redefine plastic recycling and finally crack the code on true circularity. By shifting our perspective around waste streams and focusing on creating circular solutions, we can extend the life of our planet’s natural resources, reduce our carbon footprint, and create a more sustainable environment for future generations.